Will the Wii U become the next Dreamcast?

With the Wii U poised for a late fall release window, gamers and analysts alike are wondering what Nintendo has up their sleeves, and whether or not the system will be a financial success. The system launches at an awkward time; Sony and Microsoft have yet to officially announce their next generation consoles and services such as OnLive and iOS gaming are enjoying significant shares of the industry’s income. Like the Dreamcast before it, the Wii U will launch ahead of its competition, towards both the beginning of a new generation, and the end of another. In the space of just over two and a half years the Dreamcast had been pulled from shelves and Sega bowed out of the console race altogether. Could the Wii U be the new Dreamcast, and is Nintendo on the path to becoming the latest fallen gaming empire, reduced to third party titles on other companies’ consoles?

“How not to launch a console” – by Sega Dreamcast

The Sega Dreamcast launched in Japan on November 27th 1998. By March 26th 2001 Nintendo had rather ungraciously bowed out of the console race. The Dreamcast is widely accepted as ahead of its time, it was the first console to include a built in modem, (providing support for online gameplay), and enjoyed some innovative and successful games, (Power Stone, Shenmue, Ikaruga, Phantasy Star Online and Rez, are but some of these). Despite launching first in its generation, Sega’s final console was pulled from shelves 2 years, 3 months and 27 days after it began.

The Dreamcast came at a unique time; the success of the Sony PlayStation had crushed the Sega Saturn in the prior generation, (its dominance guaranteeing a market for the PlayStation 2), and the announcement of Microsoft’s first foray into the console market, the Xbox, and Nintendo’s latest console, the Gamecube, killed a lot of the remaining hype for the Dreamcast.

Sega had burned a lot of their fans in the previous generation; pulling the plug on support for the Saturn early caused hesitation in long term fans to be hesitant of investing in Sega products in case they did it again… which they did. Whilst there is no one definitive reason for the failure of the Dreamcast, it’s generally accepted that a combination of piracy, (it was easy to burn games to CD-Rs in a time before online passes and serial keys), lack of third party support, (EA would not develop for the system as they focused their efforts elsewhere, meaning no major sports titles were released on the system), and the aforementioned lack of anticipation and excitement for the system.

Whilst Sega managed to save themselves from bankruptcy, the once great console machine now relies too heavily on rehashing and recycling old franchise names such as Sonic the Hedgehog , and re-releasing HD versions of once best sellers Jet Set Radio and Crazy Taxi. With Nintendo set to release the Wii-U between regular console generations, are they too poised to make the same mistakes Sega did, making rehashed games from their once great franchises? Will we see Mario, Zelda and Metroid in their own third party titles by 2020?

Nintendo reported 461.2 million dollars in losses over the last fiscal year, with less than stellar 3DS sales, slow software adoption in the US and Europe and price reductions in both Wii and 3DS claiming significant pieces of responsibility. Nintendo claims that their efforts to boost 3DS sales have been successful and they plan to stop selling the 3DS below cost in an effort to recuperate losses. As it’s extremely unlikely that Nintendo would raise their prices, Nintendo will likely reduce production costs by using cheaper components and services, (much in the same vein as the thin PS3 or the remodelled 360).

Here’s what we know so far: the Wii-U will be capable of 1080p output, have tilt and rumble features, stream content to a tablet-like controller and only support one touch, (most modern phones and tablets support multi-touch). Nintendo have promised a much better, dedicated online service in the Nintendo Network, finally ditching the awful friend codes in favour of a universal user name system. Whilst final graphical specifications have yet to be revealed, which is likely more due to Nintendo not having the final numbers on assembly costs or simple features such as how many USB ports, (and not a publicity stunt for a big reveal), Nintendo boasts that the Wii-U will have superior graphics to the PS3 and 360. However, rumours have already surfaced that the five and a half year old consoles still have superior graphical prowess, for example one developer has claimed the Wii-U is not capable of as many shaders. Could the Wii-U survive on innovation over graphical prowess just as the Wii before it? …but if this proves to be true why are Nintendo bothering to release a HD console this close the end of the cycle that will, or already be, less powerful than its contemporaries within two years?

However, the Wii-U has raised some interesting ideas. For one, Nintendo intends to allow retailers to individually price digital download codes, which apart from pointing to Nintendo supporting digital downloads more thoroughly, finally gives the retailer complete power over pricing of digital content. Very few well-informed gamers buy from high street stores, and even less buy digital copies at over retail cost. However, allowing retailers to individually price digital content could breathe fresh air into both the digital and retail markets simultaneously, (gamers may finally start buying digital content if it costs less in retail stores and means they can get it day one without any delivery hiccups). This in turn reduces production costs for retailers, (digital codes, often distributed on cards, receipts or emails, costs significantly less than their physical disc and box counterparts).

Nintendo have always attempted to incorporate their handheld devices into any console generation, dating back to the Transfer Pak for Nintendo 64, (which allowed gamers to play Pokémon Blue, Red and Yellow on their TVs, and transfer Pokémon between the two games for use in both), and the Wii-U is no different. Although the new Super Smash Bros. will not make the launch window, Nintendo have claimed that they will adopt a central link between the 3DS and the Wii-U, and that this link will be the games central axis.

Nintendo claim that big names such as Assassin’s Creed III, Call of Duty: Black Ops II and Batman: Arkham City will be making their way to the Wii-U in the fall, (supported by this potentially fake release list). With a North American launch date of October 30th 2012 for Assassin’s Creed 3 does this mean we will see the Wii-U on, or before this date?  Nintendo faces a serious problem here. Why would an established gamer buy a Wii-U to play these titles when the chances are they already own a PS3 or an Xbox 360? Even the rare few that don’t currently have either console could pick one up for much less money than a new Wii-U at launch, and doing so would provide access to an already well-established multiplayer base, and an experienced multiplayer suite, in comparison to the untested Nintendo Network. Look at the original Assassin’s Creed. It played better and looked better on the 360. It was built for it, on it; companies were still getting used to the PS3 developer kits and it showed. If this is any indication of what the Wii-U faces then it will be a good 6-12 months before we see the same levels of quality in Wii-U titles.

In a dangerously close echo of their decision regarding the Dreamcast, EA have announced that Crysis 3 will not be coming to the Wii-U. Whether or not this is indicative of future EA titles remains to be seen but it should not be forgotten that Crysis 2 was somewhat of a graphical powerhouse on the PS3 and 360 and with developers not yet familiar with the Wii-U it makes sense for EA not to waste potential revenue on a title that most likely won’t sell well, and doesn’t mean that future EA titles won’t come to the system.

Whilst Wii-U versions of games could easily implement aspects of the gameplay and/or menus to the tablet, (placing Assassin’s Creed III’s map or inventory onto the tablet or using the tablet screen as Alien: Colonial Marine’s motion detector), it has to be asked – where are Nintendo’s 1st party titles? The best way without doubt to draw in day one purchases is to support the launch with a strong first party line up. It would most definitely draw in the hardcore Nintendo fanboys whilst simultaneously showing the undecided and unimpressed the unique gameplay opportunities that the Wii-U brings to the industry. It may even entice PS3 and 360 owners to buy a Wii-U to supplement their ‘mainstream’ console experience.

Nintendo need strong first party games to highlight the unique gameplay opportunities much like Wii Sports and Mario Galaxy did for the Wii. If Nintendo don’t have these games in the pipeline, or these titles are simply HD versions of titles we’ve already seen on the Wii then Nintendo may as well have waited for the next true generation to release the Wii-U with competitive visuals, or controversially drop out of console race completely and focus on making quality third person titles.

The Rayman Legends trailer that leaked two weeks ago showed a new rendering engine than with superior lighting effects and increased depth, as well as new enemies and settings and new playable characters. Multiplayer was briefly mentioned, but only through competing with ghosts of other players in challenges submitted by other players, (introduced in the Vita version), and in mini-games such as the 2v2 football from the trailer. However, the most interesting revelations came towards the end of the trailer where several Wii U exclusive features were revealed…

The trailer showed four players, three playing with standard Wiimotes and one with the new tablet controller; the tablet was wired but as these are likely to be prototype systems the tablets may require constant connection to the console, or may charge via mini USB cables like the PS3’s Dualshock 3. The player using the tablet was using touch based controls to move elements of the environment in order to aid the other three player’s progression, (such as moving platforms), and was not controlling  an avatar of their own.

The tablet controller also alluded to the inclusion of game specific Near Field Communication (NFC) technology. In the trailer, a player placed a heart shaped item onto the tablet screen which restored the health of the other players, and then later another player placed a Rabbid from Rayman Raving: Rabbids which transported Rayman to a Rabbids inspired level. In the final moments of the trailer, a player picked up a figurine of Ezio from Assassin’s Creed II, (it’s an old figurine so we can assume this is simply a nod to future NFC potential applications).
Perhaps future figurines and collectables will include unpowered NFC chips, known as ‘tags’ which will be otherwise useless. Placing them onto the tablet could unlock costumes, characters, map packs and so much more, and reward players for both purchasing collectables and for choosing the Wii-U copy over others. Items included in Collectors and Limited Editions would have digital applications as well as practical, and might just be able to sway 360 and PS3 gamers into buying Wii-U editions over PS3 and Xbox 360. However, Microsoft have a number of well-established, stable relationships with third party developers when it comes to timed and console exclusive content. Already significantly superior to Sony, it’s highly unlikely that Nintendo can afford to muscle in and play with the big boys. For example, Sony already have problems organising weekend events for Mass Effect 3 and PS3 gamers have to wait to play on Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 map packs that Xbox gamers have been playing for over a month.

The Wii succeeded as a family device because everyone was awarded the same simple gameplay with new and exciting yet simple control schemes. Perhaps most importantly of all, everyone was on an even playing field. By including the tablet controller, this puts at least one player at a distinct disadvantage. This means, especially for young audiences that one child gets the hi-tech fancy controller whilst everyone else has to make do with the same cheap looking hunks of white plastic they’ve been using for the past five years already. Imagine the unbridled joy this scenario will be bringing mothers the world over the holiday season.

Personally I can’t see how the Wii U can be what the Wii was for the industry, and if it plays by the PS3 and 360’s rules then I really can’t see it being significant competition when there’s barely enough space between the already well-established consoles. In order to succeed the Wii U had to bring something new, something unique to the industry much like the Wii did, and with iOS tablet gaming already carving itself a significant percentage of the market is there truly enough space for another subsection of gaming?

Remember, Nintendo have made mistakes in the past, (Virtual Boy, Micro GameBoy Advance), but none of these mistakes have been made in this financial climate. With developers and publishers making considerable cut backs and falling by the wayside, the Wii U’s financial failure could land Nintendo in serious trouble. It’s hard for any gamer to consider a world without Nintendo but couple the Wii U’s financial failure with their significant financial losses and poor software sales, and the Nintendo of ten years from now could be a very different company from now. I’ve never been one to doubt Nintendo but unless they show something of significance I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the Wii U is the next Dreamcast – capable and compelling, but fundamentally flawed. All eyes are on Nintendo and E3 this year, it could be one of the last they attend as a major console name.